Flowers in the Ruins – further reflections on a visit to Detroit

In an earlier post, Visions of the Apocalypse – a visit to Detroit, I gave one side of the story of a visit I made to the city a few weeks ago. My focus then was on the sad state of much of the downtown and surrounding areas, and I used it to reflect on the role of cities in post-apocalyptic fiction.

With the news today of Detroit becoming the largest US city ever to file for bankruptcy, I thought it might be a good time to do as I promised in that earlier post and write about the positive side of the city. As it goes through the pain of dealing with the fallout from bankruptcy, I’d like to talk a bit about the  beauty of the city – firstly the remnants of the golden age of industrial Detroit, and secondly the new flowers sprouting in the ruins.

Remnants of the Golden Age

It’s almost axiomatic that a city have had great wealth at some time in the past. Without the attraction of a means of making a living, why would people go there? Detroit is no exception, and you can still see the high water mark of the city’s prosperity in some of the buildings and artistic treasures.

We gained part of our view of the glory that was Detroit through a walking tour with Urban Adventures, which I highly recommend if you’re thinking of visiting the city.   The tour goes through the downtown area, and takes in a number of the major landmark buildings.

Guardian Building

One of the most extraordinary is the Guardian Building, a 1920’s skyscraper also known as The Cathedral of Finance.

Detroit has an interesting downtown vibe. Although it has a fair bit of high rise it also feels open. It’s not as open as Paris, but you don’t feel enclosed by the skyscrapers the way you do in Manhattan. Even looking up at the Guardian I didn’t feel that sense of intimidation that big buildings can sometimes give off.

The Art Deco designs at and above street level are interesting enough, but the real stunner is inside the lobby.

Detroit - art deco 2

The details on the walls and ceiling are remarkable, and are done in a Native American theme. The ceiling is painted canvas, a technique I hadn’t heard of before, and the walls in the entrance lobby have beautiful tiled murals. It’s a space clearly meant to impress, and it would do so in any city in the world.

Spaces like this offset the feeling of decay and absence that you experience elsewhere in Detroit. The contrast between this kind of extraordinary architecture and the crumbling houses and empty lots elsewhere in the city is striking. Of course, there is today a certain irony in a building known as the Temple of Finance being located in a bankrupt city.

Fisher exteriorFisher hallway

Away from the downtown, in an area called the New Center, is another great Art Deco building, the Fisher Building.

This one was put up in 1928, across from the General Motors building (or Cadillac Place as it’s known now, also a fantastic piece of architecture).

The Fisher Building also has a wonderfully decorated interior, with huge chandeliers hanging from ornate ceilings. It’s home to the Fisher Theatre, a National Historic Landmark, and radio stations still use the antenna at the top of the building for local transmissions. Walking through the building, a masterpiece of design with wonderful art deco detailing including golden elevator doors, you feel the empty magnificence of it all.

And the New Center does feel as empty as the downtown area. It has some of the same odd characteristics as the downtown in that you can walk a block or two from a beautiful urban space and find yourself in a semi-derelict neighbourhood. The feeling is made all the more pronounced when you walk another block or two and find yourself in a neighbourhood of mansions, one of which was lived in by Henry Ford.

A short drive away you find yourself in Hamtramck, a neighbourhood populated by a wide range of immigrants looking to make a life in the city, and beyond that the derelict Packard Automotive Plant that I talk about in my earlier post.

The final place I want to mention in this section about the legacy of the money that flowed through the city is the Detroit Institute of Arts. The museum has one of the best collections of art in the US, art that might end up on the auction block to pay off Detroit’s debts.

They have a wide selection, including Van Gogha self portrait by Vincent Van Gogh (whose acquaintance I just made again in a Dr Who episode). The modern art section is very good, too, with works by Picasso, Gilbert and George, and Max Beckmann. The real masterpiece of the collection, though, is the mural paiRiveranted by Diego Rivera in one of the ground floor halls.

 

Known as the Detroit Industry Murals, the work covers all four walls and contains a wealth of detail and symbolism. It alone was worth the price of admission. When Detroit comes out of bankruptcy I hope the city is able to hold on to its collection of art – they’d certainly have trouble taking the Rivera away, in any case.

Flowers in the Ruins

The other beautiful aspect of Detroit is the urban art and the renewal that is taking root in odd corners.

There’s a cycle path and walkway called the Greenway Trail that runs inland at 90 degrees to the Detroit River. It’s an old railway route, aDetroit muralnd it’s now a strip of green with a pathway. It runs from the Rivertown Warehouse District up to the Eastern Market where there is a marvelous farmer’s market and some great places to eat. The route passes beneath a number of bridges, and murals have been painted to brighten up the spaces.

Detroit - Unity

 

There is one odd feature of the route, which are the signs that have been hung at regular intervals along the way. They hang from light poles and carry slogans that I’m sure are mean to be inspirational, but occasionally come off as the sort of thing you’d expect to see hanging in cities on Airstrip One.

Still, you can see the effort they’re making build a sense that Detroit is a place that can rise from the ashes and create for itself a new vibrant future.

There is one more example of flowers in the ruins that I’d like to mention, and it’s one of the most extraordinary – the Heidelberg Project. This is one of the most unusual urban art projects I’ve ever seen. It has been put together over many years by an artist named Tyree Guyton, and is partially a protest at the state he found his neighbourhood in after he returned from service in the army.

What Tyree has done is to decorate the abandoned homes and streets in a wide variety of ways. It’s hard to describe the experience of being there – if you go to Detroit, make sure you go and walk around – but it’s by turns surreal, charming, ominous and inspiring. Nothing you’ve seen before can prepare you for it.

Detroit - the LP HouseFor example, one of the houses is completely covered in vinyl LP’s. The theme of the circular records is echoed in polka dots painted on the sidewalk. You find yourself just staring at it from different angles, it’s such a strange sight. A little further down the block though is something even odder.

The animal houseIn England we’d call this a Cuddly Toy house. In America, it’s a Stuffed Animal House. It’s covered on the outside with all kinds of soft kids toys. They’ve been out in all weathers, so they’re showing the marks of the exposure to the elements. It’s the sort of thing you might expect to find out in the woods in a particularly creepy slasher film.

As you walk around you can see other animals looking out at you from the windows. It’s a strangely disturbing sight, and I can only imagine how it might look at night with some uplighters to enhance the effect.

Notwithstanding the oddness of some of the decor, you get a feeling of hope looking at the artwork on display. There’s hope in the fact that someone is taking a blighted urban landscape and transforming it into something else. Here’s hoping that Detroit can continue to transform itself and that there will be in the near future a lot more flowers sprouting from the ruins.Heidelberg 2

 

Visions of the Apocalypse – a visit to Detroit

Every city has its dark quarters and areas of run-down and crumbling infrastructure, but in my experience none so much as Detroit. A visit there last weekend with my old mate John set me to thinking about the role of cities in post-apocalyptic tales.

It doesn’t take you long to get into that mindset in Detroit’s downtown and surrounding areas. To the chagrin of those trying to renovate and reinvigorate the city, the comparisons with urban wastelands, as featured in stories about zombies, plagues, and the collapse of civilization, are hard to avoid.

I should make it clear at the beginning that I’m deliberately going to focus on the aspects of modern Detroit that the residents most hate. If you’re from Detroit, I’m sorry. There are many great things about your city, and I’ll talk about those in another post. This post is about why the ruined city presents so inviting an image in post-apocalyptic writing, and how walking around parts of Detroit is like walking into a real-world dystopia.

We spent the first night across the river in Windsor, Canada, which afforded a spectacular night-time view of the lights of Detroit. Many years after it was built, the futuristic appearance of the Renaissance Center is undiminished. I last visited the RenCen in the early 80’s when it was a relatively new feature and there was much more crime in the Downtown area. On one occasion back then, we were waiting in our car at a stop light when we were approached almost immediately by prostitutes.

Last weekend we walked all over the Downtown and a good portion of the surrounding areas and weren’t bothered once. In fact, the absence of people on the streets was one of the notable features of our visit.

The depopulation of central Detroit has been extensive, and relative to other parts of the urban area very few people live there. The suburbs are well populated, the centre is not. Like Emmental cheese, central Detroit is full of holes. The effect of the departure of the population has been to create pockets in which there are very few people and where some or all of the buildings are ruins. These areas look like a disaster befell them, with their crumbling roofs and walls, smashed windows, graffiti, and weeds growing through the cracks in the concrete.

Street in Downtown Detroit

Large parts of Detroit feel like a ghost town. The people are gone, the buildings are falling apart, and the city is largely silent.

I think this is why post-apocalyptic fiction almost always features a city in ruins.

To elaborate, a post-apocalyptic countryside is basically the same as it was before the apocalypse. It’s just a bit more overgrown. A city, though, is a powerful symbol of the effects of the apocalypse.  There is no power, the buildings crumble, the roads are choked with weeds, and trees grow from the buildings. It’s a visible representation of the destruction of civilization. In the absence of the imposed order of humankind, nature reasserts its hold and steadily takes back the space and the only thing you find on the streets is trouble in the form of zombies or street gangs.

There is also a strange grandeur to the ruins. It might seem a stretch to compare Detroit to Greece and Rome, but the same theme is there.  It’s the theme of Shelley’s Ozymandias, the knowledge that even the mightiest civilizations fall apart and their works can be undone.

To illustrate, here’s a brief story from our weekend.

We don’t know the geography of Detroit well enough to navigate it safely ourselves, so we hired a local guide to take us through the ruins. He took us to some of the most desolate parts of the city, including the ruins of the old Packard Automotive Plant near Hamtramck Town Centre. He drove us right up to the plant and parked in the empty lot of a long-wrecked grocery store. When we left the car to walk around the site he took a baseball bat with him as a bit of insurance.

The ruins are fantastical in the original meaning of the word. The 3 1/2 million square feet of factory buildings, largely abandoned since the 1960’s, stand empty and gutted. It’s a remarkable feeling to walk through this crumbling factory, once bustling with thousands of workers assembling hundreds of cars a week.

On one side are empty lots, on the other is a residential neighborhood a block or so away. On that side there remains a cluster of six houses facing the ruined plant and, a little further down, the fractured remains of the school that children of the Packard workers used to attend.

Ruins of the Packard school

I’ve seen urban devastation before – hell, I used to hang out in Liverpool during the early 80’s – but this is on a different scale altogether. It’s a melancholy sight, and one you don’t expect to see in one of America’s major urban centres. The desolation is reminiscent of a bombed city. Every other house on a block, or sometimes the entire block, is gone. Some homes were burned to the ground after they were abandoned, others simply ravaged by neglect and the elements.

It put me in mind of stories about London during the Blitz, and in particular Michael Moorcock’s essay ‘A Child’s Christmas in the Blitz’ (Quick aside: I wrote a review of London Peculiar, the collection of essays in which it appears, and you can read it here. Ruined cities are a feature of Moorcock’s writing; see his seminal Elric series for more of that).

Even in the Downtown area where much money is being spent in efforts to rejuvenate it, the marks of the disaster that befell the city are present. Empty, abandoned high rises without glass in the windows, vacant lots, crumbling facades. Turning one corner we ran into workers building something that turned out to be a set for the next Transformers movie. They’re going to have to CGI the surroundings whole before they can have the robots destroy them. In a strange juxtaposition, this was the location used to film Kid Rock’s video, Care. You can see the word, along with other slogans, written on the side of the building in the photo.

Detroit has been falling apart for decades, a slow process of decay that is different from how it usually happens in fiction. Unlike the slow decline of civilizations in real life, the fictional decline usually comes quickly. Zombie hordes, plagues, alien attacks, catastrophic weather, take your pick. The destruction sweeps in and ends the world as we know it in hours, days, or at most weeks. Part of the thrill is tied up with the speed of it. There’s nothing that can be done to prevent it. We have to survive it first, then we can try to rebuild.

This has not been the story of how Detroit reached its present condition, but as it stands today you get a glimpse of what that post-apocalyptic cityscape might look like.

And so to one final thought about dystopias and post-apocalyptic cityscapes. I think that, at heart, dystopian fables are optimistic ones. We want things to turn out better. Even Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’, as bleak a journey as it is, ends with hope.

railway3This doesn’t mean, though, that everything is somehow put right at the end of the tale. Some of the best dystopic work leaves it to the reader to interpret the ending. To use an example from film, ‘The Day The Earth Caught Fire’ ends not with a tidy resolution of the catastrophe affecting everyone on Earth, but a countdown to the measure that everyone hopes will put things right. The viewer is left with the hope that there will be a future.

Without that hope stories of the apocalypse would be a dull exercise and offhand I can’t think of a single story that ends with complete extinction. There has to be hope for the story to have meaning. We look for the flower blooming in the cracks in the concrete, the bird nesting in the eaves, the people starting over and rebuilding on the rubble of the past.
The Renaissance Center